Diversity in Publishing … Not
photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton, unknown date, Jericho Beach, Vancouver
When I became a writer, my first books were received warmly and were shortlisted for prestigious awards … then I came out and that was pretty much the end of that. Either I was a worse writer from there on in or something else was at play, something systemic, something unthinking, homophobia. I’ve gotten a lot of rejections that say something like, “Just not a good fit for our publication” or “We published a lesbian last issue and we want to diversify,” but mostly it’s just no, and no again.
I’m pretty certain my work is better now, but I am queer, and older, and disabled. I barely get read. The promising career that I was ready for never panned out, until, in January 2004, after dismal reactions to my last book of stories, I quit. I’ve been back since 2011, but the things that I hoped would be changed haven’t changed as much as the players would like to think they have.
When the gatekeepers are able-bodied, white, and straight, if you aren’t, that’s pretty much a wrap.
Here is “You Will Be Tokenized”: Speaking Out About the State of Diversity in Publishing from Brooklyn Magazine by Molly McCardle
And yet…Emma Donoghue can be unabashedly out (with titles like Hood and Passions Between Women!) and still go on to get a movie deal for Room, write the screenplay, and get nominated for four Academy Awards. Anne Marie McDonald can go ten years between novels and still command international attention for Adult Onset. Camilla Gibb can produce one blockbuster after another and then be lauded for a decidedly queer memoir about being abandoned by her wife. Jeanette Winterson can start her career with a coming out novel and prove unstoppable. Sarah Waters can make a thriving career by writing almost exclusively about lesbian protagonists. Ann Bannon can see her Beebo Brinker Chronicles re-released again…and again…and again. And that is just to name a few commercial successes. I could go on, but I’m not trying to deny that the publishing world reflects the stratification of difference in our society. I just don’t think the trajectory of a individual career is made or broken by the author’s sexual orientation. Caroline Woodward in Light Years tells a story similar to yours about early awards for her writing not translating into a lucrative career. As she notes, “my erstwhile publisher merged with a bigger publisher–one that soon cancelled its Canadian publishing arm entirely. I was, like many literary orphans in this country, set adrift, and I had lots of illustrious company; there were many good and great writers all looking for new publishers at the same time. Sometimes I’ve been blessed with wonderful recognition and “luck” in this writing business and sometimes I’ve been just as haphazardly cursed. I suspect most writers feel this way.”
The exeptions prove the rule. Certainly Gibb and McDonald came to fame with coded lesbianism, and McDonald already had clout in other fields. I’m not familiar with Donoghue’s entire ouevre, but I do know she was successful before she immigrated here, and thus a proven success and low risk. Waters and Bannon don’t speak to our borders. Woodward’s right of course that other market changes factor in to a writer’s success or lack of it. But even today, top editors say, as one did to a friend of mine this week, It can be gay, but honestly it would have to be better than all the (hetero) books we have on submission for us to take it anywhere. The sad and lonely truth is that heterosexuals for the most part see queer books as irrelevant, just as men often see women’s writing as irrelevent, and until something in the hetero psyche changes, we queers are never going to be judged on merit alone.